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Fascinating to see some of the papers willing the phone-hack scandal away

Posted on 23 January 2011 | 2:01pm

As regular readers will know by now, I don’t read any of the Mail papers, or allow them in the house, but the online revolution being what it is, every now and then some of its bile slips through the net as people send me links and say ‘hey, you ought to see this.’

One such was the intriguing observation by the Mail that Andy Coulson having left Downing Street, that should be the end of the matter and the world should move on. As the person who sent this to me said, this must be the first time in history that The Mail is interested in putting an end to other people’s misery, as opposed to exploiting it.

As I said yesterday, I found it odd that Andy Coulson felt the phone-hacking story had become so big that he was unable to do his job properly. Given the issues involved, it has not been that big at all, nothing like some of the raging torrents of media frenzy I had to deal with. That is because so many of the other papers have not really bothered pursuing it, wheras when I was doing his job, there were times it seemed the Number 10 media operation was all they were really interested in.

With the phone-hacking story, it has been possible to feel their itching to will it away. I wonder why. Could it be, as one or two of the papers finally seem to be suggesting, that far from this being a story of one rogue reporter at one Sunday newspaper, it is a story of a newspaper industry out of control, and losing sight of the importance of the law.

The Guardian has been virtually alone in really pushing on this one, and I hope they keep pushing. Far from being the end of the story, Coulson’s departure from Number 10 is just one rather dramatic chapter. But the real issues go far wider and deeper than one job in Downing Street. They are about the conduct of newspapers, the conduct of the police, and the implications for the News Corp attempted buy-out of BSkyB.

So with such serious issues at the heart of this, and so many celebs and public figures now involved, the Mail‘s line on it was very odd indeed.

The newspapers today remind me a little of the trade unions back in the 70s. They thought they could do anything, and they thought they would be able to carry on in the same way for as long as they wanted. The unions would claim support of their members. The papers claim support of their readers, and always claim to be acting in the public interest, which in their minds has become anything which interests the public, as opposed to anything genuinely in the public interest.

When an SNP politician made claims about so-called ‘cash for honours’, ‘Yates of the Yard’ and his team moved heaven and earth to investigate. The contrast with their lacklustre and frankly suspicious behaviour in relation to the investigation – or rather non-investigation – of the phone-hacking scandal could not be clearer.

But just as few people ever believed only one reporter and one private detective were up to no good at the News of the World, so few people believe this is a practise confined to one newspaper. It is clear that Scotland Yard has lost any credibility in its pursuit of all this. But somebody in authority – police complaints, another police force, a select committee perhaps – has to get into this issue now in real depth and detail and in a way that goes right across all the papers. Perhaps David Cameron could set up a Royal Commission into the workings of the modern media. (I know, I know, flying pigs are more likely but I just throw it out there)

Mail editor Paul Dacre was recently in charge of a review of the publication of government papers, one of the more ludicrous appointments Gordon Brown ever made. Dacre was calling for greater openness. Let us now have that sense of openness about the way the media operates. Let their practices be subject to the same level of scrutiny as other people and organisations in public life. Then I think we may see why it is that they want this story to go away.

  • Anonymous

    A good review here by Roy Greenslade of how the papers covered (or in some cases didn’t cover) the Coulson /phone hacking story.

  • Jacquie R

    “Royal Commission into the workings of the modern media” is music to my ears, even more so if you add the words “ownership and regulation”. Would be good to see Labour fighting for this – and the Lib Dems. It is really necessary.

  • Alistair – I know you have expressed your respect for Andy Coulson, despite his 2001 election question to Tony & Cherie about being members of the mile high club – I don’t think I am alone in being far more questioning of the honesty and integrity of journalists than you ( and that is probably not needing an explanation)
    the way a journalist can leave the Guardian to work for the Daily Wail appearing to me to be like leaving a job as a social work adoption supervisor to take up border control in “Shootemdeadistan”.
    Dacre’s role in protecting the press freedom to smear and gossip may have something to do with it don’t you think? – the PPC being the gates at the entrance to regulation’s double edged invasion force.
    there doesn’t seem to be much honour among Murdochs but my suspicion about Coulson’s original resignation was that Rupie already had a more useful job lined up for him – now he’s out Rupie just may have to wait to get another pet so close to 10 Downing street power – more back door visits himself doesn’t look good…but I expect them anyway.

    A private eye page title seems worthy here – but all in the street keep helping to preserve that street.

  • Olli Issakainen

    Did Andy Coulson jump or was he pushed? Pushed by a man coming to Britain soon, as has been suggested.
    The Coulson story was not resonating with public. If he is innocent, why to resign? Why now?
    News International is now complaining that it is being made a scapegoat for a practice that was widespread across the Fleet Street. Forgive me, but were we not supposed to believe that only one “rogue reporter” was involved?
    According to Piers Morgan everyone knew about practices that were going on at almost every paper in Fleet Street for years.
    Have we been witnessing a massive cover-up of systematic criminal activities? What is the role of the Met in all this? It has had the evidence, but has not been too eager to investigate. It is a question of incompetence or corruption. What about the CPS?
    Time for chequebook management is over. We need to know the truth now.
    Involvement of the police is a scandal on its own. Judgement of the PM is also in question.
    What about News Corp´s takeover of the remaining 61% of BSkyB? Do we want to increase or limit the influence of a media company that can swing elections and destroy reputations?
    Is it OK that an American citizen dictates the European policy of a democracy?
    Rupert Murdoch has commercial ambitions and conservative political agenda. He wants to see Fox News UK.
    News Corp-BSkyB would change the UK media market. Ofcom surely wants Jeremy Hunt to refer the bid to the Competition Commission. The merged company would simply be too influental both politically and commercially.
    Everyone deserves a second chance. But there will not be a second chance for the smaller media companies if the deal goes through.

    Ps. Expect bad growth figures next week. Labour left a growing economy with the deficit £10bn below the forecast, but now the Tory-led government has messed things up with its reckless gamble. We will see high unemployment, zero growth and rising prices and inflation. The government has made a wrong choice.

  • Steve Brundish

    The media has long been an issue for anyone interested in democracy and free speech. For Labour the issue was only confronted when Tony Blair brought in Alastair as his communications chief. This gave Labour a fighting chance to get their message across but now with the phone tapping allegations and the obvious close relationship between News international and David Cameron the time has come for a review of broadcasting and the media. A review that needs to recognise that the communications industry not only controls news but entertainment and internet speeds. News international has an interest in all three.
    The following was a post I recently made on the Labourlist web site. The culture of entertainment as we all know has changed dramatically in the last few years. With videos gone and DVDs fast following them, downloading HD films and accessing games on the web has become the norm. In most parts of the country 20Mb downloads speeds are available with BT rolling out 40Mb and testing 1Gb. Entertainment is evolving but not everyone can get or afford the superfast connections that many of us take for granted. This along with the challenge Sky has made to terrestrial TV means there are policy questions that will affect all of us in the way we access or would like to access entertainment in the very near future.
    Access to superfast broadband and subscription pay per view TV is an area Labour cannot ignore in the run up to the next election. With the evolving nature of entertainment, it is time to focus on the needs and challenges of the 21st century media. A change in regulation is required to charge the regulator to provide reasonable cost HD films, sports and high speed internet. Without this regulation such access will become a preserve of the well off.
    Balanced political debate and a broad spectrum of quality programme commissioning should also be a priority of an incoming Labour government. To pursue this the broadcast media (including SKY), newspapers and the internet need to be brought under one regulatory umbrella. The new body, totally independent with a membership representing the wider community, should be empowered to impose substantial fines if publishers/broadcasters break guide lines designed to enable the UK to have a competitive free and fair media.
    Under the Tories we have a policy based on diminishing choice and debate. Their actions in reducing the BBC’s funding, removing powers from Ofcom and cancelling the levy on phone lines will lower standards, reduce innovation and allow SKY/News International to gain a dominant position in the UK media.
    The challenge to an incoming Labour government has three strands, to enshrine free speech and quality programming, to ensure adequate competition in broadcasting and enable affordable access to high speed internet. The regulatory body will therefore be central in delivering the opportunity for fair access to the media for all, not just those who can afford SKY’s subscription charges. Labour can show that we have the vision to make a difference

  • Robert

    I suspect this general retreat by the press now that Coulson is gone is one of going back into their comfort zones of general Tory cosying up whilst still trying to present the government as having spines of their own.

    They will be all too aware “that nothing is so weak or unstable as a reputation for power which is not based on one’s own forces”.

    Or they should be if they have read their copies of Machiavelli properly! And even then, dearest Niccolo was quoting from the Annals of Tacitus, if the footnote in my copy of “The Prince” is correct.

    In other words they seem to be putting strings between the puppeteers and the puppet (instead of using the direct method) in the hope that that’ll go down better with the voters.

    Nothing if not truly Machiavellian.

  • Gilliebc

    Completely agree Jacquie R. A Royal Commission sounds like a good idea, providing it is allowed to remain truly impartial and not influenced or infiltrated by those with their own specific agenda.
    I’ve just paid a quick visit to Guido’s site and the more moronic of the populous seem to be holding sway there this evening. Several of them stating that FoxNews would be good to have in this country because it is “funny” So many people in this country have already become so dumbed-down that those in power can do exactly what they want and a large part of the population don’t even care.
    Well I for one do care and so do many other people, hopefully.
    Is it really too much to ask that the media, mostly TV and newspapers,
    in our country give us an honestly obtained and accurate account of what is really happening in our own country and the wider world? that’s a rhetorical sort or question btw.
    Another excellent blog AC I think most of us are interested in watching how this story unfolds!

  • Chris lancashire

    Amongst all the Murdoch bashing it may be good to remember that twas not always thus – in the days that he supported TB.

  • Nicky

    I feel particularly disgusted with the behaviour of the Met over this affair, especially with regards to John Yates. As a police officer he had to take an oath which includes the words: ‘I will well and truly serve the Queen in the office of constable, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality‘. (My emphasis.) As you have mentioned, AC, Yates was very keen to try and nail TB and others over the alleged ‘cash for honours’. I have a very tenuous connection with one of the people caught up in that, as headteacher Des Smith was my husband’s history teacher back in the late 70s. Mr Smith, who was a govt advisor on education (due to his long service to education and particularly his part in changing a failing school into a very good one) was treated so badly during Yates’ obsessive and bullying investigation that he nearly had a breakdown. (And as someone who’d taught at very tough schools in his time, he wasn’t exactly a delicate little flower.) There was also the young woman (a Downing Street aide) who was subjected to an arrest at dawn by Yates’ crew. And all that effort by Yates, all to nail TB, came to nothing – because there was in fact no case to answer.

    As you’ve pointed out, AC, when Yates had to investigate something which showed a Tory PM in a bad light, he seemed quite anxious to sweep it all under the carpet. That does make his oath of impartiality seem rather hollow.

    The Indy summed it up well:

    An iron triangle consisting of Downing Street, News International (owner of the News of the World) and the Metropolitan Police attempted to rubbish this investigation and tried to sweep wrongdoing under the carpet. Yesterday’s resignation must be the start of accountability, not the end.

  • Richard

    It is hard to believe that the control freeks whom you served whilst in Downing St, did not avail themselves of all the surveillance techniques open to them, Al.
    Would you care to comment on the state phone bugging which went on in your time?

  • Nicky

    Liberal Conspiracy’s take on the Coulson scandal … with the help of the LOLcats.

  • Jacquie R

    Chris, no one has forgotten that Tony Blair made sure he had Murdoch on his side. The sad fact is that it was necessary to get elected, illustrating precisely why the current system is so unhealthy.

  • Sarah Dodds

    A few highlights I have lifted Straight from Robert Peston’s blog. Sounds like there are squeezed bum cheeks galore right now…

    “Executives at News are engaged – they tell me – in finding out everything they can about who was hacked by the News of the World, News International’s Sunday tabloid, and who at News International knew about the hacking.

    Once they have the details, they will offer settlements to those celebs, politicians and others whose privacy may have been invaded – to cut out the requirement for huge lawyers’ fees.

    Any culpable News International executives will be sacked.

    They tell me all of this could happen in a matter of weeks.

    And, not too subtly, the message will be sent out that if News International’s Augean Stables have been cleaned, what about the stench from other media groups? Because, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, there was a period at the start of this century when questionable techniques to obtain stories were employed by a number of newspapers.

    In this context, it matters that Mark Lewis – the solicitor who obtained a whopping settlement from the News of the World over the hacking of the phone of Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association – is preparing cases for clients alleging unlawful breach of privacy against media groups other than News International.

    I spoke to Lewis yesterday, and the allegations of his clients are pretty hair-raising. Which implies that those other media groups (and they know who they are) should probably be conducting thorough internal reviews, to ascertain just how liable they may turn out to be.

    Not to over-dramatise, this has all the potential for the newspaper industry to turn into its version of the MPs’ expenses scandal.

    But back to News International. What are the implications for that vast media business?

    Now there are two separate questions of culpability here.

    First there is the basic question of who knew about the hacking and who authorised it.

    That’s primarily what its own internal investigation, which began with the suspension of Ian Edmondson, head of news at the News of the World since 2005, is aimed at discovering.

    Now without pre-judging the outcome, when Mr Edmondson was suspended a few weeks ago, News International executives told me that they expected Andy Coulson to resign as the prime minister’s communications director – which he duly did on Friday.

    Their prediction that he would go wasn’t because they had found e-mails or evidence that he was directly implicated in the hacking – or, at least, so they said. It will take some time for them to conclude their trawl through Mr Edmondson’s e-mails and computer files.

    But they didn’t see how Mr Coulson – as the News of the World’s editor at the relevant time – could stay on in government, once News International had made its very public demonstration (through the suspension of Mr Edmondson) that it was re-examining its earlier statements that it had already found out everything that needed to be found out and had taken all the necessary corrective action.

    For what it’s worth, colleagues of Rupert Murdoch tell me he knew nothing about the hacking. He’s in London this week and – say executives – is hopping mad about the whole thing. He is so angry, he may even cancel News Corporation’s annual jaunt to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

    His son, James – who runs all of News Corp’s European and Asian operations – is also in the clear, because he was chief executive of British Sky Broadcasting when the hacking was taking place.

    But there is a separate question that shareholders in News Corporation will want James Murdoch to answer – which is why he didn’t order this comprehensive internal review much earlier.

    In particular, what’s hanging over James Murdoch is the statement made to MPs in July 2009 by two News International executives – Tom Crone, its head of legal, and Colin Myler, then editor of the News of the World – that James Murdoch authorised payments to Gordon Taylor of several hundred thousand pounds to settle a case of invasion of privacy.

    Rather than paying Mr Taylor to keep his mouth shut about the whole affair (the settlement included a confidentiality clause), some would argue that James Murdoch would have done better to find out quite how systemic hacking had become in his organisation, and taken whatever remedial action was necessary.”

  • Sarah Dodds

    Bugger – sorry what was meant to be a few points turned out to be the whole blog…

  • Pingback: With thanks to Robert Peston, another phone-hacking blog | Alastair Campbell()

  • John Clayton

    Yeah, the media’s practices should be suspectible to the same rigorous scrutiny as other organisations…like the government and intelligence services, for example, who are so open to being held accountable. Then we’ll all be living in a morally pure utopia, where nice people do the right thing for us.